Is it just the flu?
Is it just the flu?
As the weather starts to get colder, people start talking about “cold and flu season” and going to the doctor for a flu shot. When someone does get sick, they will often be heard to say, “It’s just the flu – I’ll go to my doctor for some antibiotics.” But is it a cold or is it the flu? What’s the difference? Is it really seasonal? Is it really just the flu, and will antibiotics help?
If your symptoms hit suddenly and hard – you’re feeling weak, tired, running a fever of 38.5C or more, have a severe headache and you ache all over, this is probably the flu. If your symptoms come on more gradually – you have a sore throat, stuffy nose, maybe some coughing and a mild headache, this is probably a cold.
So what? It’s no big deal – you’ll just go to the doctor for antibiotics, right? Colds and flu are both caused by viruses, so antibiotics won’t help. Nothing will actually cure either one, although there are lots of things you can take or make at home or do to ease the symptoms a bit.
Ok, you say, but it’s just a cold or flu, right? It’s no big deal – the ads on tv imply that you can just take some medicine and stay in bed for a day and then go back to work – or maybe go back to work once you’ve taken the medicine. But is that true? It depends – who remembers SARS? That was a non-influenza virus that experts said could be contained by “quarantine and hygiene” – stay at home if you’re feeling sick and wash your hands frequently. But the flu virus spreads much faster and doesn’t respond to “quarantine and hygiene.” And it can be deadly – the flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920 spread around the globe in about four months, killing millions of people. It was sometimes called “the Spanish flu” but that’s not accurate – scientists don’t know where it started, or when. It was spread quickly partly because of troop movements and their close quarters during World War I, and killed about 10 to 20% of the people that were infected. Most flu viruses hit the very young, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 hit hardest at healthy people in their prime – more than half the deaths were among healthy people 20 to 40 years of age, because the disease caused a massive overreaction of their immune systems.
One academic argues that the virus “helped tip the balance of power” toward the Allies nearing the end of the war, because the viral waves hit the Central Powers before they hit the Allied Powers and that “both morbidity and mortality in Germany and Austria were considerably higher than in Britain and France.”
If you would like to find out more about the flu pandemic of 1918, here are some suggestions:
and Children's fiction: